Featured Post

Maintaining Your New California Garden: Life-friendly Fall Pruning

  Mother Nature's Backyard in November: illustrating life-friendly fall pruning. Late fall and early winter are important prun...

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Summer: The Time for Garden Planning

Summer is an excellent time for garden planning

Summer time and the livin’ is easy.  If you garden with California native plants, garden chores are minimal now, leaving plenty of time for pure enjoyment.  Summer is also an excellent time to evaluate and to plan ahead for the next growing season.   So grab your favorite summer beverage and your garden notebook, relax in a comfortable garden chair, and plan to make your garden even better in the coming year.

Start by giving your garden a critical look.  Are there specific areas on which you want to focus in 2015-16?  Note that down. Are you replacing your lawn (or decreasing its size)?  Have plants succumbed to the drought and need replacing?  Are there plants you dislike (for whatever reason) and need to remove?    Are some plants too big for their area?   

Focusing on specific plants/parts of the garden is a good way to begin your yearly planning.  It makes planning more manageable and suggests actions you can take to prepare.  For example, you can save water by not watering plants slated for removal.

Walk around the entire garden, looking closely at individual plants.  Are there plants that are/have been sickly or suffering from pests and diseases? You might want to look for more robust alternatives.  Are there diseased or dangerous limbs that require immediate removal and disposal? If so, sterilize your pruners/pruning saw and get to work.  Diseased or hazardous limbs call for immediate action.

Look critically at the hardscape (the non-living elements of the garden). Are paths and walkways located in the most logical places? Do you need better access to garden beds or other parts of the garden?  Are paths/walkways wide and stable enough to accommodate the people/equipment that routinely pass over them (trash barrels; garden carts; etc.).   Are paths/walkways safe to use?   Do they add to the beauty of the garden?

Look critically at the amount of shade your garden provides.  Summers (even winters) will be hotter in the future.  Are there shady places for outdoor seating and dining?  Would a screen, patio or awning make your house and garden cooler?   Shade should be a priority for at least parts of your yard.  Consider hardscape options as well as shade trees, vines on trellises, vine-covered arbors, etc.

Do you have a water feature in your garden?  Would you like one?  Water features can be small and water-wise (recycling water).  The sound of moving water is cooling and birds/insects can drink at many types of water features.  

Consider ways to make your garden more water-wise.  Review or determine your water goals for the garden (http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2014/02/designing-your-new-california-garden-9.html).  Consider ways to make better use of precious precipitation and irrigation water (http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2013/02/harvesting-rain-introduction.html) 

Review the garden photos you’ve taken through the year. (note: if you haven’t taken occasional/monthly photos of your garden, now is a good time to start).  Is there something of interest (flowers; fruit; foliage) at all times of the year?  Are there enough flowering plants to supply pollinators from March to October?   Are cut flowers available at times you need them?

Summer is a great time to look critically at your garden

Consider the views from common vistas.  Take a critical look at the aesthetic aspects of your garden.  Do you like the views from common vistas (like your front walkway, back porch or living room window)?   What don’t you like?  Can you hide an unattractive utility area or air conditioner?  Does the design appear unbalanced?  Lack a focal point?   For more design ideas review our posts on creating a design plan:

Consider the useful aspects of your plants.  Growing edibles (including native edibles) is gaining popularity and many gardeners raise at least some edible plants. But the choice is yours.  Does your garden produce the right amount of edibles (fruits & berries; vegetables; seeds; spices/teas)?   Does the garden provide enough materials for favorite garden crafts like potpourri or soap-making, paper-making, pressed flower crafts, natural dyeing?   

Think about the visitors to your garden.  Do people love to visit your garden?  What do people like most?   Are there changes that would improve their garden experience (more/more comfortable seating; shade; tables for food/drink, etc.)?

Does your garden smell wonderful?  However you define ‘wonderful’, scent can be an important addition to a garden.  Would your garden be more interesting with more scented flowers or foliage?

Consider signage for your front yard. You might be surprised at the number of  people who walk past your yard every day.   Front yards can be wonderful educational venues.  Let passersby know that your front yard is water-wise and life-friendly.  Consider small signs with the names of some of the more interesting plants.  

Inexpensive sign holders are available from Gemplers (http://www.gemplers.com/product/G49600/Galvanized-Sign-Holder-18-Stake-5x4?pfx=OAWP) or Westhort (http://www.westhort.com/store/pc/Sign-Holders-c23.htm?pageStyle=h&ProdSort=19&page=4&idCategory=23&SFID=&SFNAME=&SFVID=&SFVALUE=&SFCount=-1&viewAll=yes )  You simply design & print out your sign, laminate it and insert it in the holder.   Or purchase a native plant sign from the California Native Plant Society’s on-line store: http://store.cnps.org/.

Watch the birds, butterflies and other pollinators visiting your garden.  Is there enough for them to eat?  Is water regularly available?  If not, plan to improve that in the next year.  Are there specific birds or insects you’d like to attract to your garden?   Summer is a wonderful time to learn more about their needs.  Spend some time on the internet or at the (air conditioned) library; find out what your favorite creatures need to make their home in your garden.

Register your habitat garden.  Do you provide habitat for birds, butterflies, Monarch butterflies or pollinators?  Now is a great time to register your garden as a habitat garden.  Here are some useful websites:


Design new/renewed areas (if any).  If you’re new to the design process we recommend our series ‘Designing Your New California Garden’ : http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2013/07/designing-your-new-california-garden-1.html    Designing a new garden area can be fun, creative and satisfying.  If designing’s not your cup of tea, now is a good time to find a garden designer who will help bring your ideas to fruition.

Order seeds and (especially) bulbs.  As native plant gardening becomes more popular, some seeds and bulbs disappear quickly from seed and bulb sources.   For a list of California native seed, plant and bulb sources, see: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/southern-california-native-plant-seed-sources-1213.

If you don’t already have them, start a Garden Notebook and personal Garden Calendar.   Note when seeds germinate, plants flower and fruits ripen.  Jot down ideas for future projects.  Paste in pictures of inspirational gardens and luscious plants.   Note what works and, perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t.  A Garden Notebook keeps all the things you need in one place: and there’s something satisfying about that!



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com



Monday, July 13, 2015

Surviving the Drought

Surviving the Drought: water-wise front yard, Redondo Beach CA

What a stressful time for California gardens and gardeners!  We’re into the fourth year of the worst drought on record.  Many gardeners must decrease water consumption by 25% or more; and even water-wise gardens are beginning to show the long-term effects.  So, what’s a gardener to do to survive the drought?

Those who installed water-wise gardens well before the drought are fortunate; an established water-wise garden has the best potential to survive until the next rainy season.  This is particularly true if last winter’s meager rains were supplemented with winter/spring irrigation. 

Some readers installed water-wise gardens more recently – or not at all.   Your challenge is greater, but not insurmountable. You’ll need to water a little smarter, and revise your expectations; some plants won’t make it, given current restrictions.  In the wilds and in our gardens, four years of drought are difficult for young plants to survive.  

Remember that young plants – even those that are water-wise – need extra water for the first summer (grasses; smaller shrubs) or up to the first 3-4 years (large shrubs and trees).  A good rule of thumb for California native plants is twice the recommended (mature) water for the first summer; 1 ½ times for the second summer and 1 ¼ times the third summer.

Much has been written on ways to reduce water consumption.  Some of the tips  below are nothing new; you’ve heard them before from your water company or other sources.  But any idea merits consideration these days, and a few may be new to you.   Hopefully, these tips will help save water and permit your garden to survive in the best shape possible.

  1. Conserve as much water indoors as possible.   Short showers, sponge baths if feasible, low-flow toilets, doing full washer loads, etc. Water saved in the home can be used to water your garden.
  2. Use ‘clean’ house water to provide extra water to vulnerable plants.  When you heat shower water, wash hands and rinse dishes, collect the water in a bucket or dish pan.  Use it on plants that need a little extra water.  You’ll be surprised how much water you collect every day.  If your local codes  allow it, consider the pros and cons of using gray water (more on this in a future post).
  3. Check for water leaks, indoors and out.  Are there leaks in irrigation valves, pipes, hose bibs, hoses, drip irrigation tubes?  Even a slow leak can waste significant amounts of water.  Do a quick check of irrigation systems every couple of weeks.  Fix leaks - or at least collect the water and use it.  Listen for toilets running when they shouldn’t be (you have to get close to the toilet or the pipes to hear it).  Toilets with slow leaks are a common home water waster.

Surviving the Drought: let dry conditions hasten lawn removal

  1. Turn off the water to your lawn if you plan to replace it.  Now is a great time to let Mother Nature help remove the old lawn.  Put up a sign informing your neighbors that you’re replacing the lawn with a water-wise alternative; make it colorful and/or humorous.  Remind passersby that ‘Gold is the New Green’ and that California has always been both green and golden.  

Removing a lawn is the patriotic thing to do in Southern California and other dry regions.  And waiting to replant until next winter is the smart way to go.

  1. Withhold water from plants you want to remove.  Most gardens contain  plants that are old, unsightly, too big, sickly, etc.   Why waste water on them?  If feasible, let Mother Nature hasten their demise; the job of removal will be easier as well.   Once again, a well-placed sign will help allay neighbor’s fears that you are abandoning your yard.
  2. Prioritize your plants.   Big and/or important plants should get first priority in terms of water.   Shade trees, arbor vines, fruit trees, vegetable crops – any plant that provides important services to your family – those are the plants that deserve the water.   Smaller plants and those that grow quickly – including ornamental grasses and bedding plants – can be replaced when conditions improve.

Surviving the Drought: group plants by water needs (Water Zones)

  1. Review your Water Zones (hydrozones): If you planted a ‘New California Garden’ (see http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2013/07/designing-your-new-california-garden-1.html ) your plants are grouped based on water needs (Water Zones).  Review the Water Zone concept (http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2012/04/water-wise-gardening-tip-save-water.html ).  Plants that are Water Zone 2 need only be watered when the ground is dry at a depth of 3-4 inches.  Check the soil before you water; established Zone 2 plants may require water only once a month.

Surviving the Drought: mature citrus trees are water-wise.

  1. Review the water needs of trees and shrubs. Trees/shrubs from dry climates do best with occasional deep water.  If you have mature trees/shrubs from dry climates – including citrus trees, olives, eucalyptus, mediterranean herbs and others from S. Africa, Australia or the Mediterranean region – water them monthly or less.  Slowly water with a hose to deeply water.  The plants will likely be more healthy and productive.
  2. Water early/late in the day and on cooler days.   If you garden with water-wise native plants, the weather report is your best ally.  Wait for a period of cooler weather (with more clouds or the marine layer) to water your native plants.  For optimal plant health, summer water at times that are followed by several days of relatively cooler weather.   Hot, moist soils promote root fungi and other plant diseases.
  3.  Conserve soil moisture with mulch.  We’ve written before about the use of mulches (http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2012/07/understanding-mulches_23.html ).  Some local native plants normally need only a thin layer of mulch.  In the current drought we recommend adding an additional 1-2 inches to the recommended mulch depths.  If next winter brings lots of precipitation, simply rake away the excess mulch.  Remember to leave a 6-12 inch mulch-free zone around tree/shrub trunks.

Surviving the Drought: add a little extra mulch

  1. Keep irrigation water at ground level.  Evaporation is a problem with all overhead irrigation (even the new, water-wise sprinklers).   The more irrigation you do at ground level, the more water actually gets into the soil.

If you currently water shrubs, trees and perennials with overhead sprinklers, consider purchasing some inexpensive soaker hoses to get you through the summer.  The porous ones made from recycled tires are great; they’re inexpensive, readily available and come in several lengths. Soaker hoses can be positioned where water is needed, covered with mulch, and attached to a garden hose when watering.    Even if you return to other irrigation methods in the future, soaker hoses can help get your plants through the drought.

  1. Insure that irrigation water goes where it’s needed.  Check the placement of soaker hoses and drip irrigation – are they really watering the plant root tips (often near the drip line) or do they need to be moved?  

Surviving the Drought: use hose-sprinklers

  1. Consider using a sprinkler attached to a hose rather than conventional irrigation systems this summer.   Hand irrigation allows more flexibility in the placement and amount of water.   Many of the old-fashioned (and inexpensive) oscillating, whirling or stationary hose sprinklers lose less water to evaporation than conventional sprinklers.  They can be positioned and adjusted to water precisely as needed.    If feasible, consider using them – in at least some areas of the garden - this summer.
  2. Direct the water precisely when watering new or vulnerable plants. When providing additional water to individual plants, be sure that the water goes just where it’s needed.  Trickle-watering with a hose is one idea.

Surviving the Drought: make a trickle-water bucket

We also use 5-gallon plastic paint or utility buckets for directed slow-watering.  Just drill a 1/8 inch hole in the side of the bucket, 1 ½ inches up from the bottom.  Place the bucket near the plant, fill it with water, direct the flow and let the watering bucket do the rest.

Surviving the Drought: trickle-water buckets in action

This is an extremely efficient ways to water individual plants (we use these buckets in restoration projects as well as in the garden). For larger plants, place several buckets, as needed, around the drip line.   Watering buckets are easily filled with the water saved in Tip #2, above.

  1. Move potted plants to slightly cooler/shadier positions.  Potted plants need more water than those in the ground.  Consider moving potted plants to a slightly shadier position (for example, a place with afternoon shade) during the summer.  Plants will likely thrive, and water requirements will decrease.  

Another trick is to double-pot.  In this method, the plant is planted in an inner pot (clay is best for water-wise plants) with a diameter 2-6 inches less than that of the decorative outer pot.  A 2-4 inch layer of gravel is placed in the bottom of the outer pot; the inner pot is then placed inside the outer pot. The layer of air between the two pots helps keep the plant roots cool and decreases evaporation.

Surviving the Drought: move pots to shadier places

  1. Provide some afternoon shade where feasible.  Many water-wise plants – even those that like sun – will do fine with a little afternoon shade.  If you can figure a way to provide some shade, do so.
  2. Learn from Mother Nature. While the current drought is historic, it’s likely a good indicator of things to come.  Climate predictions suggest that Southern California will experience more extreme weather in the future; some years will be dry (like this one) and others will bring excess precipitation.

 The past four years have provided excellent lessons about which water-wise plants are ‘super-survivors’; we’ll discuss our conclusions in a coming post. But keep good notes on plants in your own garden.  You may conclude that some plants are just too difficult to maintain during drought conditions.  What you learn today will help you plan for a water-wise, life-friendly future.  

  1. Taper off water to S. California native plants in late summer.  Remember that many California native plants need a dry ‘rest period’ in fall. Plants that normally experience summer monsoons (Sonoran Desert and some Baja California plants;  Chaparral shrubs, especially those from San Diego County) usually need some water in August.  Decrease water to the rest, beginning in mid- to late August.

Surviving the Drought: provide water for birds & insects

  1. Provide a little drinking water for birds, butterflies and pollinators. Drought is tough on all living things.  Provide water for birds and insects; it takes just a little water to keep these garden visitors alive.
  2. Be realistic: some plants will not make it.   It’s really hard to lose a plant, particularly one that you love or have lavished time/energy on.  But the harsh reality is that some plants will not survive the drought, no matter what you do.  That’s bitter medicine that we’re all having to swallow. 

In Mother Nature’s Backyard and other gardens we’ve already lost several large shrubs; we’re keeping a wary eye on our Bigberry manzanita and hope it survives.  So you’re not alone – or a poor gardener – if you lose some plants this summer.  If it’s any consolation, Mother Nature herself (the ultimate Master Gardener) is having a tough time this year!



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Plant of the Month (July) : Coyote mint – Monardella villosa

Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae incarnata) feeding on Coyote mint (Monardella villosa)

It’s only natural to think about pollinator plants in July; so many pollinators – including the showy butterflies and moths – are active right now!  Summer is an excellent time to evaluate the habitat value of your garden and consider new plants for fall planting (more on that topic later this month). Some of our best native pollinator plants are in the Mint family.  And a particularly charming one, the Coyote mint, is blooming right now in Mother Nature’s Garden of Health.

The genus name ‘Monardella’ honors the Spanish physician/botanist Nicol├ís Bautista Monardes (1493-1588).  Monardes was interested in the medicinal uses of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern plants, and wrote several books on these topics. He did not, alas, ever see a Monardella; but we’re certain he would have enjoyed learning about them!

At least 30 species of Monardella are native to California. The taxonomy of this group is still under active revision, so the final number may be higher or lower.  While some are annuals, more (about two-thirds) are perennials and many are locally endemic (grow in a limited geographic area).  Many are rare or endangered in the wild, but a few species are now grown in California gardens.  Among the latter, Monardella villosa (including its sub-species and cultivars) is probably the most widely used.  The Narrowleaf/Flaxleaf monardella (Monardella linoides) and Mountain monardella (Monardella odoratissima) are also available from native plant nurseries and planted in S. California gardens.

Coyote mint (Monardella villosa) in Mother Nature's Garden of Health

The Monardellas are native to western North America, from British Columbia, Canada to northern Mexico.  Most are aromatic – some with a strong minty aroma – and most are used for medicinal and culinary purposes.  Coyote mint (Monardella villosa) is native to Central and Northern California and southern Oregon. Four sub-species are currently recognized (Monardella villosa ssp. franciscana; M. villosa ssp. globosa; M. villosa ssp. obispoensis; and M. villosa ssp. villosa).  The species grows on dry, rocky slopes in the coastal mountain ranges and western Sierras.  It can still be found at elevations of about 1000 meters or lower (3000 ft or so), primarily in chaparral, oak woodlands and forest openings.   

One year old Coyote mint (Monardella villosa) plant
While the sub-species vary in their characteristics, all are perennials (or half-woody sub-shrubs) with a sprawling to mounded shape, 1-2 ft (0.3-0.6 m.) tall and wide. The many thin stems are square in cross-section (typical of Mints) and may be woody at the base.  The overall shape of the plant depends somewhat on light, water and whether the plant is browsed or pruned back in fall.  Yearly pruning encourages a full, mounded shape.

Close-up of foliage - Coyote mint (Monardella villosa)
The leaves are medium green (‘mint green’) to gray-green, generally small (several cm. or less than 1 inch) and either rounded or lance-shaped. The foliage has a strong, minty aroma (some say it smells like toothpaste) particularly on hot, dry days.  As seen in the photograph above, the leaves arise from the axils (branching points), a characteristic of the Mints.  The foliage is usually hairy and the leaves are stress-deciduous (normally dropped in dry conditions).  Occasional water can prolong leaf-retention in the summer.

Flowers of Coyote mint (Monardella villosa) in tight clusters.  Note Skipper butterfly.
Monardella flowers are usually quite showy and Monardella villosa is no exception.  The species flowers in summer – commonly June through July or August with a little water.   The flowers are clustered in tight, ball-like clusters along the stem, another good hint that this plant is a Mint.   Flower color ranges from pale lavender to a darker purple or magenta; petals sometimes have darker blotches.  The individual flowers (see below) have narrow petals that are fused at the base and anthers (male sex organs) that extend beyond the petals to promote pollination.

Close-up of flowers - Coyote mint (Monardella villosa)
In general, Monardellas like sunshine and well-drained soils.   But in Southern California, particularly away from the coast, they may prefer some shade.  If your garden is hot, provide a little afternoon shade.   

We’ve grown Monardella villosa in both sandy and clay soils.  The trick is to limit summer water to 1-2 times per month, preferably given at times when the temperatures are cooler.  Coyote mint is more tolerant of irrigation than many Monardellas; but it does hail from rather dry conditions and really dislikes excessive winter water.  If you garden in clay, consider situating this mint on a slope or small berm.   Benign neglect – not irrigation – is best for a long, healthy life.

'Russian River' Coyote mint (Monardella villosa 'Russian River')
One cultivar that does well in local gardens is Monardella villosa ‘Russian River’.  This lush-looking cultivar from Sonoma County (see above) was introduced to the horticultural trade by Cal Flora Nursery.  The dark green foliage and bright magenta flowers make this plant a showy addition to the garden.  Growing 1-2 feet tall and 2-3 feet wide, ‘Russian River’ tolerates sun/part-shade and occasional water.   As seen below, it looks more like a groundcover than the straight species usually available in S. California nurseries.

Flowers of 'Russian River' Coyote mint (Monardella villosa 'Russian River') are particularly lovely.

Coyote mint looks best with yearly fall pruning.  Remove about 1/3 of each stem/branch in the fall, after flowering has ceased.  Plants will grow new leaves and side branches with the winter rains, producing a nice, bushy shape.  Remove the spent flowers (deadhead) as they occur to prolong flowering or allow the old flowers remain until fall.  Birds will happily eat the seeds; the plants may also naturally re-seed.
'Russian River' Coyote mint (Monardella villosa 'Russian River') in native plant garden
Madrona Marsh Nature Center, Torrance CA.

So, why consider adding Coyote mint to your garden?  First and foremost, it attracts a wide range of butterflies.  From the larger Western Tiger Swallowtail, Gulf Fritillary and Mourning Cloak to the smaller Blues and Skippers – all find the flowers simply irresistible.  You can’t do much better than Coyote mint for a reliable ‘butterfly magnet’.  The flowers also attract other pollinators including native bees and hummingbirds.  If you want a garden full of action, add a Coyote mint or two.

Umber Skipper feeding on Coyote mint (Monardella villosa) flowers

A second good reason to plant Coyote mint is for its culinary and medicinal uses.  This is not one of the major medicinal mints; however an infusion (tea) can be used to settle an upset stomach, and an infusion or a salve made from leaves is used for respiratory complaints.  The leaves and herbaceous stems can be used fresh or dry in recipes calling for mint.  The flavor is clean and fresh – and definitely minty!   The foliage makes a delicious tea, particularly when ‘brewed’ as a sun tea.   The flavor of this mint changes if exposed to high temperatures.  Best to steep your tea in cool water – or in the sun.

A third reason to consider Coyote mint is its attractive foliage and lovely flowers.  Combine Monardella villosa with other plants that enjoy relatively dry conditions – for example the native Salvias.  It provides color during the hot summer, when Salvias are dormant.  The ‘Russian River’ cultivar makes a nice groundcover on slopes and under tall trees.   It also looks charming cascading over a wall.   Consider planting Coyote mint in an herb garden or in dry areas near the vegetable garden to attract pollinators.  Or plant a mixed perennial bed with California fuschia (Epilobium canum), the Grindelias, Common yarrrow (Achillea millefolia) and Asters (Aster species and Symphyotrichum chilense) for a long-blooming butterfly show.

 'Russian River' Coyote mint (Monardella villosa 'Russian River') in home garden,
 Redondo Beach, CA.

In summary, Coyote mint is a plant with habitat, culinary, medicinal and aesthetic value.  It is a good addition to water-wise California gardens and a delight to behold.  We hope you’ll consider adding Monardella villosa to your own home garden.

For a gardening information sheet see: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/monardella-villosa  

For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html




We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your native plant gardening questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com